A Guantánamo (Numerical) Milestone, and What It Means…

Although public and media attention has been, understandably, focused on this morning’s release of the SSCI Torture Report, another piece of national security-related news making the rounds today is last Friday’s clearance, by a Periodic Review Board (PRB) at Guantánamo, of Abdel Malik Ahmed Abdel Wahab Al Rahabi. Al Rahabi’s case doesn’t appear to be exceptional, but it does represent a numerical milestone: As a result of the PRB’s clearance of al Rahabi, exactly 68 of the remaining 136 detainees at Guantánamo have been cleared for release. (If you’re scoring at home, of the un-cleared 68 detainees, 35 have been slated for potentially indefinite detention–the “forever” detainees”; 23 have been referred for military commission prosecution; seven are awaiting military commission trials; and three are serving sentences for military commission convictions.)

Part of why I find the 68/136 statistic telling is because this is likely going to be the last moment at which the number of detainees who have been cleared for release will be equal to or greater than the number of detainees who have not been cleared. If the developments of the last few weeks are any indication, the Obama Administration is apparently stepping up its efforts to transfer detainees who have been cleared for release–part of why the population is down to 136 from 149 as recently as Election Day. But whereas many have seen (or wanted to see) in these transfers a sign that the Administration is finally trying to make real progress on closing Guantánamo, the reality may well be exactly the opposite: The more progress that the Administration makes in transferring those detainees who have been cleared for release, the more it highlights the real obstacle to closing Guantánamo: What to do about the “forever” detainees, whether they number 35 or 58 (if none of the 23 men referred for military commission prosecution actually can be so tried)? That’s not to say that the transfers aren’t a positive (and long overdue) step; or that the PRB process isn’t a welcome development in helping to clarify who the government does and doesn’t believe it needs to be holding. And as Jen wrote last Friday, we shouldn’t automatically assume that, just because these 35 detainees were too dangerous to release four years ago, the same is true today (indeed, al Rahabi is an important example to the contrary). But as the Guantánamo numbers continue to trickle down, the pressure on both of the political branches to find some solution for the “forever” detainees will only ratchet up. 

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About the Author(s)

Steve Vladeck

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security and Professor of Law at the University of Texas School of Law. Follow him on Twitter (@steve_vladeck).